Did you know that an occupational therapist can often address anxiety?
First, understand that a child who has “behavior problems” often reacts as they do because they are anxious. Children are not willfully bad and will do well if they can. When children feel safe and supported, behaviors are much easier to address, so responding with empathy rather than anger goes a long way to help a child who is out of control,
Anxiety is best treated with a variety of approaches, most of which can be addressed by an occupational therapist. “Talk therapy” is not effective; in fact, it often increases the focus on the topics of worry which is not helpful. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a must in addition to other strategies. The brain needs retraining to stop the worry cycle. For all children, but especially those with autism or ADHD (or symptoms of these), an occupational therapist can meet the different learning needs they may have to help them learn strategies to manage anxiety.
In addition to helping children understand they need to change how they think, it’s important to understand a child’s:
- Executive functioning: Are there delays in the problem-solving abilities? We address executive functioning skills through a variety of activities (aka “occupation”!) and play.
- Flexibility and rigidity: Do they lack cognitive flexibility? Are transitions difficult? We use a variety of strategies, including actual practice when needed, to support a child who has difficulty switching from one thing to another.
- Learning style: Do they learn best with movement, art, visual supports? We try to match these needs and preferences to our approach.
- Modulation: Does a child see things in black and white or extremes? We help children see and understand that there are compromises or a middle ground.
- Mindset: Do they believe they can change or their circumstances can change? We emphasize a growth mindset.
- Body awareness: Do they have a sense of how their body reacts when anxious, can they read their own body signals? We teach this explicitly because the body often sends signals before a child is aware and this can help them use strategies before they have a meltdown or overreaction.
- Ability to understand how their brain works: Understanding the mechanism in the brain responsible for anxiety lessens the emotional charge associated with it.
- Sensory responses: Do sensory sensitivities factor into their anxiety?
We also can help distinguish between a somatic complaint related to anxiety versus a true sensory issue (if a child is sensitive to clothing, for instance). For hypersensitive children it is often important to address the anxiety as well. If symptoms have recently changed (increased or are newly onset), it may be a somatic response to anxiety rather than a true sensory issue.
Parent training is also very important! You need to know how to respond to your child’s worry.
This is why our anxiety groups include parent involvement. Treating anxiety needs to be a team approach. Anxiety gets worse over time if untreated, so don’t assume that your child will grow out of it!
One of the best things about an occupational therapist treating anxiety is that we can make it FUN for them!
Make sure you’re in our private Facebook group if you want to learn more about how you can address anxiety at home, and connect with others who can relate.
You can see the schedule and register for groups here.